/// Wild Tracks - Landscape Photography by Eduardo Gallo


Passion for Landscape Photography

Death Valley National Park, CA, USA

December 2013

Death Valley National Park, CA, USA

Canon 5D MkII & EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, 1/6s f/8 ISO400 @50mm

Google Earth for this photo

In 1894, after tuberculosis had killed six of his siblings, a young man named William Henry Schmidt abandoned his native Rhode Island and arrived to the Northern Mojave following the advice of his doctor, who wisely believed that moving to a warm and arid climate might spare him from the same fate. Working as a lonely miner, he eventually established a few claims in the El Pasos Mountains (approximately 80 miles south of the above image), including one high on the North side of Copper Mountain1.

Schmidt was convinced that the easiest way to take the ore from his mine up on the mountain to the processing facilities on the valleys to the south was to dig a tunnel through the mountain's solid granite, so in 1906 he started digging and blasting his way equipped with little more than pick, shovel, hand drill, four pound hammer, and wheelbarrow. By the 1920s, however, his tunnel was no longer necessary as a suitable road had entered the remote area. Undaunted, Schmidt persisted on his endeavor, and in 1938, an astonishing 32 years after starting, he finally reached daylight at the south side of the mountain. Schmidt, who at that time was 67, then sold the mountain claim and moved to a nearby canyon where he lived fifteen more years until his death.

The tunnel is more than 2000 feet long and averages 7 feet high by 5 feet wide, although the last section is lower and narrower reflecting Schmidt's declining health and strength. It is estimated that he excavated around 5800 tons of rock. Throughout all those years Schmidt lived an extremely frugal existence at his one room cabin near the tunnel's north entrance, supporting himself by working at a nearby ranch every summer. Since his only companions were his burros, Jack and Jenny, he became known as "Burro" Schmidt. His cabin and tunnel can still be visited today.

I was reading the story of "Burro" Schmidt and other similar characters while having dinner half an hour after taking the above picture, sat Indian style on the back of my SUV, with my sleeping bag stretched besides me, trying to kill off some time to shorten the oncoming 15 hour freezing night. Quite happy with myself, as I had reached this isolated place without getting my vehicle stuck (a rare occurrence lately), had been lucky enough for the sun to briefly find an opening in the clouds half an hour before sunset and then again a few minutes after dusk (unfortunately also a not so common event), and also had been smart enough to be at the right places both times (fortunately more common but not a given thing).

Canned tuna with mashed potatoes, together with some crackers. Peanuts, cheese, and a few dry plums for dessert. Quite depressing, and unfortunately very similar to the lunches and dinners of the previous days, and also of the ones to come. And now that I think about it, not so different either from the breakfasts. Started thinking about this "Burro" man. One day he said he was going to dig a tunnel and three decades later is done. Even if it was useless. Even if he had no help. Even if everybody else thought he was nuts. Man against a mountain. His will against the granite. Against all odds. And when it was done he left. Just like that. Hats off to him. For a while I wonder what kind of man he must have been.

Mesmerized by the story (it sounds even better when you read it surrounded by complete darkness while parked on the side of a four wheel track 26 miles from the closest pavement and 10 more from the nearest barely inhabited place), I took out the topo map and started wondering how far I was from any other human being. As the crow flies. Impossible to know but 10-15 miles was a good bet. Odds were good that 20-25 miles was also a winning hand.

Lights off and into the sack. Or into the bag, to be correct. And a lot later but nevertheless all of a sudden, in the middle of the night, I am awaken by two front lights. Good the bet was not real. By the time I unzip and get out of the sleeping bag, the lights are parked thirty feet from me. Will all the alarm bells ringing in my head, I quickly put my boots on, pick up the head light, grab the knife, and get out of the vehicle. Huge old and rusty truck. Heavily loaded. Old guy comes out. Tall and skinny, with a long white beard. Nice guy fortunately. Forgot to ask his name. Turns out he owns a small mining claim predating the extension of Death Valley National Park. An hour down the track, he tells me. Plans to spend a few weeks digging. "Past Christmas?" I ask (it was December 18th). "Well past Christmas" he responds. Truck full of supplies and mining equipment. Asks what am I doing there, and gets his response. Now that I think about it, in my humble opinion he is crazier than I am, although I assume he might think otherwise. He then takes the right hand to his temple and gives me a very informal salute. Says something like "enjoy your time", I do not really remember. Gets a "take care" or something similar for answer. Truck leaves and I follow the lights into the distance, smaller and smaller, until I notice how cold it is. I get back to sleep, relieved. And suddenly I connect the dots and start thinking about "Burro" and how similar he could have been to this guy. Kudos to both of them.

1The story of William Henry Schmidt is based on the text of the visitor's guide to Death Valley and the Northern Mojave, written by William. C. Tweed and Lauren Davis, and published by Cachuma Press in 2003.